- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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1 Will the Bucs repeat?
No Super Bowl champion has successfully defended the title since the Broncos did it at the end of the 1998 season. For once, though, the victorious coach isn't calling past winners and reading motivational books, trying to figure out what it takes to stay on top. At 4 a.m. on a late-July day, it's business as usual for Tampa Bay's nonstop coach, Jon Gruden, at the workstation just off his training-camp bedroom. "I need a play," the raspy-voiced Gruden says, "one play to finish this offensive script for practice this morning." He thinks for a moment, then rustles some papers before coming up with 200 Jet Gash Triple Right F Right for his daily duel with defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. "This one's been in the laboratory for two years."
So what does Tampa Bay have to fear most? The early grind, maybe. The teams that play in the Super Bowl have the shortest off-season as it is, and this year the Bucs were one of four teams that had to report to training camp early because they were playing in an extra preseason game. (They play the Jets in Tokyo this Saturday, and the Packers and Chiefs meet in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 4.) "I think it's ridiculous," Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson says. "The league should reward the Super Bowl winner, not make it play five preseason games. The starters will fly halfway around the world to play one series."
Gruden doesn't seem to be overly worried about that, or the loss of three starters. The most noteworthy departure was safety Dexter Jackson, the Super Bowl MVP and free agent who went to the Cardinals; he'll be replaced by nickelback Dwight Smith. With a core group of still-hungry veterans who go hard every day in camp, the Bucs have an excellent chance to repeat.
In the four years since Elway retired, Denver is 34-30 with one postseason appearance—and a first-round exit at that. "I've been around for every one of those [games]," says wideout Rod Smith, "and all I can say is, Horrible, horrible, horrible. We can't tolerate that. This is the year that all changes."
Coach Mike Shanahan made two significant moves to try to get his team over the hump. Concerned that aloof quarterback Brian Griese was losing the respect of his teammates, Shanahan released him even though the Broncos will have to take a $6.9 million salary-cap hit next year; free agent Jake Plummer, who at times ran hot but was mostly cold during six seasons with the Cardinals, was signed to replace Griese. Shanahan also said goodbye to defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes, whose unit, in a game against the Raiders last season, allowed Rich Gannon to complete 21 straight passes; Larry Coyer, formerly the team's linebackers coach, takes over the defense.
Plummer has never completed more than 59.2% of his passes and has only once thrown more touchdown passes than interceptions in a season. However, if Shanahan can turn his quarterback into a passer with a 64% completion rate and a plus-10 touchdown-to-interception differential, Denver will win the AFC West.
3 Which NFL rookie is under the most pressure?
That's an easy one. If's Jets defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson, the fourth choice in the April draft. Whereas the top three picks—in order, quarterback Carson Palmer ( Bengals) and wideouts Charles Rogers (Lions) and Andre Johnson (Texans)—will be tutored extensively by their mediocre clubs before being thrown to the wolves, the plan is for Robertson to be thrust immediately into the pass-rushing tackle slot by a team with Super Bowl aspirations. The Jets, a playoff participant the past two seasons despite ranking 19th and then 24th in the NFL in total defense, need interior pressure from the 317-pound Robertson to reduce the time a quarterback has to make plays against New York's suspect secondary.